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Important Changes to Washington Residential Landlord Tenant Law

Recently adopted Senate Bill 5600 substantially amends Washington residential landlord tenant law effective July 28, 2019.[1]  These changes apply to all existing residential leases, regardless of the terms in those leases.  This article briefly addresses the major changes and provides recommendations for landlords to consider.

 

Overview of the New Residential Landlord Tenant Laws

Residential tenancies and eviction in Washington are governed by the Residential Landlord Tenant Act, Chapter 59.18 RCW (RLTA) and the Unlawful Detainer statute, Chapter 59.12 RCW.  The major changes in these two laws are summarized as follows:

 

  1. 14-Day Pay or Vacate Notice Required Before Commencing an Eviction. Residential landlords must provide a 14 day (as opposed to 3 day) pay or vacation notice to residential tenants prior to commencing an eviction action.
  1. Change to the Definition of “Rent.” “Rent” has been defined to exclude late payment fees, damages, deposits, legal costs, or other fees owing under a lease. A landlord can treat nonrefundable fees or deposits as “Rent”, provided those fees are part of an installment payment plan created at the commencement of the tenancy.  In addition, a landlord must first apply any payment by a tenant to “Rent” before applying the payment to nonrecurring charges (late fees, etc.) or draws against the tenant’s deposit.
  1. Limitation of Late Fee Damages to $75.00. A landlord’s late fees assessed against a residential tenant are limited to seventy-five dollars ($75.00) per month. This late fee is collectible only if it is included in the lease.
  1. Limited Action to Recover Attorneys’ Fees and Costs. A landlord cannot obtain an award of attorneys’ fees if the judgment for possession is entered because a tenant failed to appear or if the total amount of Rent awarded in the judgment is equal to or less than two months’ rent or $1,200, whichever is greater. Further, if the court orders a stay of the writ of restitution, attorneys’ fees will be awarded to the landlord only if the tenant is permitted to be reinstated.
  1. Court Discretion to stay the Writ of Restitution up to 90 Days. A judge on his or her own initiative, or upon motion by the tenant, may stay or hold-off execution of the writ of restitution for up to 90 days. This means that even though the court agreed that the landlord is entitled to possession of the property, the tenant is allowed to stay, provided the tenant complies with a payment plan ordered by the court (payment plans are discussed in Paragraph 6 below).  The courts can assess a number of factors when deciding to issue a stay.
  1. Court ordered Payment Plan. If the judge orders a stay it may order a payment plan for the tenant to satisfy any amounts owed. If the tenant fails to comply with the payment plan, the landlord must serve another notice of default and wait three days before the sheriff can remove the tenant.

Tips for Landlords Navigating the New Residential Landlord Tenant Laws

The effect of the changes will be to lengthen the time required to evict tenants for non-payment of rent, and that means more lost rental income.  Landlords should consider the following to minimize the impacts of the new laws on a landlord’s bottom line:

 

  1. Don’t wait! Issue the 14-Day Pay or Vacate Notice on the first day rent is past due. Many landlords will wait several days after the first of the month (or the date that rent is due) before issuing a pay or vacate notice.  In fact, some leases even provide a 3-5 day grace period before the landlord can issues the notice.  Landlords should issue the 14-day notice immediately and should consider removing any grace periods from their leases.
  1. Consider larger security deposits. Residential evictions will now take between 30 and 45 days to complete from issuance of the 14 day pay or vacate notice.  A one month’s security deposit will leave insufficient funds to cover lost rental income, let alone damage repairs or other charges.  To make a larger security deposit more affordable to tenants at the beginning of a tenancy, landlords can collect smaller installment payments over the first several months of the tenancy to gradually increase a deposit to equal two months’ rent.
  1. Always check a city’s municipal code and other local regulations. Many cities, including Bellingham, adopt additional regulations governing landlord tenant relationships. Local regulations generally add more protections for tenants, and remain applicable.

 

Please contact Tim Schermetzler at Chmelik, Sitkin & Davis, P.S. if you have questions about your residential leases or need assistance.

[1] Commercial tenancies are unaffected by SB 5600.